When New York officially banned hydraulic fracturing in late June 2015, many assumed the long-heated political debate was over and there would be no fracing in New York unless the courts overturned the ban. In less than a month, however, the energy industry has exposed a potential loophole in the ban with new proposals to use a waterless method to extract natural gas from shale formations.
After the ban, a group of five New York landowners near the Pennsylvania border signed an agreement allowing energy company Tioga Energy Partners to collect gas from roughly 53 acres collectively owned by the group. Tioga Energy Partners filed an application for a permit with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in early July. DEC has not made a decision on the application to date, but the filing is already sparking new controversy over fracing in New York.
Unlike traditional high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which uses large amounts of water to fracture formations, the Tioga application proposes using propane gas suspended in a gel along with sand to fracture gas formations, hold them open, and release natural gas. After the formation is fractured, the gelled propane then flows back to the surface where it turns to gas and can be recaptured for later use. Because the Cuomo administration’s ban focuses on the use and disposal of large amounts of water, proponents of the gelled propane method say that the ban does not cover this alternative type of well stimulation.
Environmental groups reacted quickly to the proposal, condemning the method as dangerous and asking the DEC to ban propane fracing or conduct a thorough environmental review. According to environmentalists, the propane method creates risks of explosions and improper handling of flammable gas as it returns to the surface. Although propane gel fracing is not currently in widespread use, proponents of the method counter that it has safely been used to complete hundreds of wells in the U.S. and Canada.
It remains to be seen how the Cuomo administration will address this new proposal.